Epiphany Eve

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Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: January 5 or 6
Where Celebrated: Great Britain, Europe, United States
Symbols and Customs: Fire, Lord of Misrule, Twelfth Night Pageants
Related Holidays: Christmas, Epiphany


The celebration of Twelfth Night is part of the Christian tradition. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

As the last of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, Twelfth Night marks the end of the Christmas season. Why twelve days? The custom of extending CHRISTMAS may have derived from the pagan custom of marking the WINTER SOLSTICE for a number of days-a widespread tradition in Europe, particularly England, from the eleventh century onwards. But the exact day on which this seaTwelfth Night

son ends remains ambiguous. To some people, Twelfth Night means the evening before the Twelfth Day, or January 5. To others, it means the evening of the Twelfth Day, or January 6. In any case, it is often observed on the night of EPIPHANY rather than the night before.

Twelfth Night has been observed since the Middle Ages with games, masquerades, and other revelries. Elaborate pageants, processions, and pantomimes, combined with singing, dancing, and feasting, took place under the direction of a LORD OF MISRULE , a mock official assisted by a "fool" or jester. In rural parts of England, Twelfth Night celebrations included bonfires (see FIRE ), masques, and the curious custom of "wassailing" the fruit trees, which meant carrying jugs of cider to the orchards and offering toasts to the apple trees to ensure a good yield. In France, Germany, and the Low Countries, young boys would dress up in exotic costumes and paper crowns. Representing the Three Kings, or Magi, they would go begging from house to house, carrying paper star lanterns on long poles.

By the eighteenth century, the lavish celebrations that had been associated with Twelfth Night began to lose their appeal; by the nineteenth century, they had practically died out, although remnants of the ancient festivities survived in some areas. The King of the Bean (see LORD OF MISRULE ) is still a popular Twelfth Night tradition in Belgium, Portugal, England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In the United States, TWELFTH NIGHT PAGEANTS are still popular, including masked figures, costumed musicians, and the performance of traditional English dances like the Abbots Bromley Antler Dance or Horn Dance. In New Orleans, Twelfth Night marks the beginning of the CARNIVAL season, which ends on Mardi Gras, the day before ASH WEDNESDAY.

January 5 is also referred to as Old Christmas Eve, because according to the Old Style or Julian Calendar, CHRISTMAS fell on January 6. The inhabitants of some remote areas of Great Britain continue to observe ancient customs associated with Old Christmas Eve.



At one time in England, it was customary to light twelve small fires and one large one in a field sown with wheat as a means of protecting it from disease. In Ireland, a sieve full of oats was set up as high as possible, and twelve lighted candles were set in the grain, with a larger one in the middle. Although the meaning of these customs has been largely forgotten, some say that the fires were intended to symbolize Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles. Others see them as a survival of heathen sun worship. A similar Twelfth Night custom survived in Westmorland. A holly bush or young ash tree would have torches fastened to the branches. The torches were lit and the tree was carried around the village to the accompaniment of music. When the torches had burned out, two rival groups would scramble for the remains of the tree, and the rest of the night would be spent in merrymaking.

In the United States, it is traditional to take down the Christmas tree and other greenery used to decorate the house, pile it up outdoors, and burn it on Twelfth Night. In fact, the custom of lighting bonfires on Twelfth Night seems to be gaining in popularity.

Lord of Misrule

The custom of electing a king to rule over the festivities on Twelfth Night can be traced back to the reign of Edward II in England. The usual custom was to prepare a special cake, known as the Kings' Cake (Gâteau des Rois in France), and to conceal a bean (sometimes a pea or a coin) inside. The cake would be cut into as many pieces as there were guests at the Twelfth Night feast. The youngest member of the family would distribute the pieces, and whoever got the piece with the bean inside was crowned "King of the Bean" or "Lord of Misrule." If a woman got the bean, she would choose a king. A mock court would be assembled by drawing slips of paper from a hat, and these assumed characters would have to be maintained throughout the evening. The custom lasted far into the nineteenth century, but it was eventually discontinued because so many coarse and offensive characters had been introduced. Elaborately decorated Twelfth Cakes remained popular until late Victorian times and are still served in some parts of Europe today.

Twelfth Night Pageants

For hundreds of years, miracle plays about the Three Kings had been staged at this time of year, originally in church sanctuaries and then later, when the performances had become too secular, outside the church. Religious dramas were eventually joined by the staging of popular tragedies, comedies, and historical dramas. William Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night is believed to have been first presented for Queen Elizabeth I at Whitehall Palace in 1601.

The Twelfth Night pageants performed in the United States today are usually far more modest than the elaborate productions of Elizabethan England. But many of the dances and characters incorporated into these modern performances can be traced back to medieval times.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Twelfth Night

Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Crippen, T.G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.


BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/christmas/carols_3.shtml
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Epiphany Eve (Austria)

January 5
At one time the 12 nights between Christmas and Epiphany were known as "Smoke Nights" in Austria because people went through their houses and barns burning incense. Now the ceremony takes place on only one night, January 5. Also known as the Vigil of Epiphany, there is traditionally a special feast on this night during which an Epiphany cake is served. Three beans are concealed in the cake—two white, one black—and whoever finds a bean in his or her portion gets to dress up as one of the Three Wise Men or Holy Kings. The one with the black bean dresses up as the African king, Balthasar, by rubbing his face with soot or shoe polish. On Epiphany Day the three kings are the guests of honor at the table.
After the Epiphany Eve meal is served, to follow an old custom, the father or head of the household takes a shovelful of coal and burns incense on it. He walks through the house and outbuildings spreading smoke from the incense, followed by the oldest son, who sprinkles holy water in his path. The rest of the family follow, with the youngest child carrying a piece of chalk on a plate that has been blessed in morning mass. After each room and outbuilding has been blessed, the father takes the chalk and writes the initials of the Three Kings—C for Caspar, M for Melchior, and B for Balthasar—over every door leading to the outside. The ritual is believed to protect the household from evil in the coming year.
See also Perchtenlauf
Embassy of Austria
3524 International Ct. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-895-6700; fax: 202-895-6750
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 21
EncyChristmas-2003, pp. 221, 771
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 15

Celebrated in: Austria

Epiphany Eve (France)
January 5
On the eve of Le Jour des Rois ("the Day of the Kings") it is customary in France to give food, clothing, money, and gifts to the parish poor. In Alsace, children go from door to door dressed as the Three Kings, asking for donations of eggs, bacon, and cakes. In Normandy, children make their neighborhood rounds carrying Chinese lanterns and empty baskets, in which they hope to collect food, clothing, and money. In Brittany, someone dressed as a beggar leads a horse, decorated with ribbons and mistletoe, through the streets. There are empty baskets hanging from the saddle in which donations are carried. In Provence and some other parts of southern France, children go out on Epiphany Eve to meet the Three Kings, carrying cakes and figs for the hungry Magi and hay for their camels. Even though they may not meet the Three Kings on the road, they can see their statues standing near the altar of the church, where an Epiphany mass is celebrated at night.
BkFest-1937, p. 119
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 182, 581
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 404
FestWestEur-1958, p. 33
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 16

Celebrated in: France

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
While finally giving his essentially serious treatment of the theme of the revenant and the innocent lover a light-hearted overlay, Zukovskij in "Svetlana" is at the same time "striving to embody in poetry the national Russian theme [and] the search for folk character." (24) The compendium of Russian Epiphany Eve rituals, customs, and games provided in the opening stanzas, for example, is wholly authentic.
Moreover, the opening formula, "Once on Epiphany Eve," is typical of the Russian folktale, and (says Semenko) "the episode in the hut, when the heroine finds herself alone with the threatening corpse, was evidently suggested by a Russian folktale from the North, in which a girl in a similar situation is helped by a cock...." (27) The conversion of the cock into the dove of the Holy Ghost is, of course, Zukovskij's own inspiration.
14 In this connection one may perhaps contrast the lack of modal agreement between psalm and respond in the first Greek psalms for Christmas Eve and Epiphany Eve (Vatican gr.